Scams target immigrants seeking U.S. Green Card

A program that offers immigrants a "Green Card" through a State Department lottery is drawing fraudsters targeting those seeking legal residency in the U.S.

Advertisements claiming to help people qualify for a Green Card under the Diversity Visa Lottery are bogus, the Federal Trade Commission is warning.

In the federal program, people from certain countries are allowed to apply. Names are drawn at random, and those who are chosen can become legal permanent residents of the U.S.

"Unfortunately, the FTC has seen websites that claim to be affiliated with the program, but are not," the agency said.

Among the red flags are any claims that you can still qualify for the drawing. Both the 2015 and 2016 programs are already closed, the FTC said. When the State Department begins taking applications for the 2017 program during the fall of next year, the only place to apply is through the official government site www.dvlottery.state.gov.

"If you see an ad or another website that says you can apply through them, it's a scam," according to the FTC.

Another sign of fraud is any site that attaches a charge to entering the program. Applying to the government lottery is free. And there's nothing that can be done to improve one's chances of qualifying.

"Ads for companies that claim they will help with the program's application are looking to take your money," the FTC said. "If you pay, the companies may ask for more money to increase your chances of winning -- but they can't deliver on that promise."

Another scam involves those who have applied for the lottery and then receive a call, email or letter declaring that they have been selected. The FTC noted that notification is conducted solely on the State Department website. And it will never cost any money to find out the status of your application.

Applicants for the 2016 program can check on their status starting on May 15. Fees will be collected from those who are chosen and decide to move forward, but only through a U.S. embassy or consulate, the FTC said. "The U.S. government will never ask you to send payment in advance by check, money order or wire transfer."

The FTC asks anyone who sees evidence of a Diversity Visa scam to file a complaint on the agency's site, Spanish language site, or by calling 877-382-4357.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.